Cancer being the second leading cause of death in the world has set many scientists in pursuit of a cure. The chances of survival after being diagnosed depend on the type of cancer you have, and what stage you are at. It is well known that detection of cancer at early stages is quite difficult and once you reach stage 4, your chances of recovering are pretty slim. In this article, we examine the potential for employing nanobots to effectively treat and eradicate cancer.
What is cancer?
Most of us know cancer as a disease caused by the malfunctioning of cells. When our genetic material known as DNA gets damaged, it poses many risks to the cell, the major one being cancer. Normal cells respond to signals which tell them to stop dividing and growing. They also have a mechanism called programmed cell death or apoptosis which enables them to kill themselves if any of their components are damaged. The immune system also plays a role in eliminating damaged cells.
Cancer cells, on the other hand, are masters at hiding from the immune system and ignoring signals the surrounding cells give them. They grow in number, form tumors and direct the body’s circulatory system to provide them with nutrients. This clump of cells almost behaves like a separate entity, although they possess the same genetic material as the host. Since they do not respond to the suicide signals, they just live on indefinitely. These immortal cells spread as tumors to various organs and ultimately result in the death of the host.
Why is it so hard to cure cancer?
When we say cancer, we’re also referring to all 100+ types of cancers. A cancer that occurred in the brain cannot be cured using the same procedure as a cancer that occurred in the lungs. Cellular differentiation is one of the main reasons. Another reason is that genetic material differs from person to person and therefore, a cure that works for one person may not work for another. This makes it difficult to find a universal cure for cancer as it requires a proper diagnosis and prognosis.
Nanobots – The Future of Cancer Treatment
Numerous theoretical research has shown that nanobots could change the whole game of cancer treatment. They are miniature intelligent machines that operate at a nanoscale (size range between 1-100 nm). Since cancer occurs at the molecular level, these nanobots could be employed to tackle the root cause of it. The nanoscale field also brings in specificity, which is of extreme importance when it comes to the treatment of cancer.
There are three ways in which nanobots could assist in the treatment of cancer. We can use them for the detection of cancer cells, drug delivery as well as physical interventions. A nanobot can be programmed to do all three too.
There are a few major components that a nanobot must have in order for it to complete its task. Depending on the function of the nanobot, these components may be modified. They are listed below along with their functions:
Since they are machines, they must be powered by a source. A power source could be a battery, or it can derive its power from the body’s chemical reactions. It may also use light and magnetic fields to power itself.
Since they will be mostly suspended in blood or other bodily fluids, they must have propellers in order for them to ‘swim’ through, to reach their target site.
This is a vital component of the nanobot, which can be programmed to sense any anomaly in a cell. For example, cancer cells produce a lot of lactate which can be used as an indicator to detect cancerous cells. Additionally, a nanobot may be functionalized on its surface using antibodies and other proteins which would help in attachment to the surface of the cell. In the case of imaging for diagnostics, a camera can also be used instead of a sensor.
This is the component that performs an action as specified by the in-built program. After a nanobot has detected a cancer cell, it can then attach to the cell in order to kill it.
The nanobot could be equipped with drugs or molecules to be released at a target site after it attaches to the cancer cell. Alternatively, it may also have a component that can physically puncture and release cell components resulting in death.
Communication hub and Information processors
A single nanobot would take forever to complete its task. Just like the functioning of white blood cells in our body, a nanobot must be able to detect cancer cells, relay the message to other nanobots as well as receive messages from them. External control may be necessary in the case of diagnostic imaging.
Challenges and safety concerns of using nanobots for the treatment of cancer
Nanobots are still in their early phases of being developed. As of today, they have only been successful in theory. When these machines are applied for medicinal purposes into the human body, they must do so without triggering any immune response. The body may reject it once the immune system detects it as a foreign object; inflammation or an infection could be deadly. Their interaction with the body should be studied, in order to predict the kind of response it will have to the body and vice versa. Once their task is done, they should also be able to safely exit from the body without harming it.
Despite their miniature size which provides a great advantage concerning medicinal use, they are extremely difficult to manufacture. Precision and targeting specificity make it harder to scale up the manufacturing process because quality is crucial when it comes to anything that involves the treatment of diseases. A nanobot must be able to differentiate between a cancer cell and a normal healthy cell; failure to do so poses a health hazard to the patient. It also leads to the waste of resources.
The use of nanobots also raises regulatory as well as ethical concerns. Proper rules and regulations must be established before nanobots are commercially available to the public. Guidelines regarding the privacy and consent of the patient also require attention. Companies must provide full disclosure about their nanobots and what information they store about their patients. Since they are programmable little machines, the risk of misuse is immense.
Nanobots may not just be a part of science fiction, soon enough. Theoretical studies have proven their effectiveness in treating cancer and therefore, we may just be a few years away from having the world’s first nanobot injection for cancer. Their size, target specificity, and interdisciplinary use make them an attractive field in the world of robotics. Regardless of their potential, rigorous research in terms of biotoxicity, targeting specificity, guidelines, and regulatory considerations are integral, before we can utilize nanobots for the treatment of cancer. This promising arena assures us that cancer will one day be tackled before it tackles us or our beloved ones!